Sex workers and our moral police

Wasfia Nazreen.

Published in bdnews24 on 13 October 2010.

This piece challenges the hypocritical taboo surrounding sex workers in Bangladesh.

On August, our Election Commission — in an announcement that sounded too good to be true — had recognised the title of sex workers to be added to our National ID cards. That is, along with journalists, nurses, tailors, priests and many other existing professions, sex workers were legally accepted in the central database of voters’ roll.

Election Commissioner Shakhawat Hossain was quoted by the AFP: “If anyone wants to put sex work as a profession, we will recognise that. There is nothing wrong with it. After all, it is one of the oldest professions on earth. We honour the human rights of all professionals.”

Joining many other activists I leaped and saluted Mr Hossain and the EC for publicly announcing something that made sense after a long time, holding the respect that one truly deserved. The Sex-Workers Network of Bangladesh (SWNOB) immediately drafted a ‘thank you’ letter and started preparation for a celebratory event.

That joy however did not last long. Within a week, the EC shocked everyone again, by withdrawing their decision.

During the first formulation of the voter list in 2007, 14 vocations were included in the registration form: government employee, private sector employee, physician, engineer, teacher, lawyer, banker, trade, labour, farmer, student, housewife, daily wage workers and unemployed. Then later on, the Photograph with Electoral Roll Project had proposed that the EC include 30 more vocations — such as blacksmith,
fisherman, carpenter, cobbler, boatman, porter, butcher, cook, vendor, rickshaw puller, barber, tailor, judge, contractor, driver, nurse, journalist, retired government employee, gardener — in the registration form. The EC approved all at first. Within a week, however, they recalled their decision, and approved only 29, omitting the one and lonely profession of sex work.

Sohul Hossain, another Election Commissioner, was then quoted in saying that people of this occupation will have to use the option of ‘other’.

It is important to note that this is not only a ‘Voter’s ID’ card but ‘National ID’ card. This ID card is not only used in casting votes but is essential and required by the State for many other purposes including opening bank accounts, in getting passports, or in getting license from trade bodies. And most importantly, as it pertains to the sex workers, this card is used for getting their children admitted to schools.

“National ID diya labh ta ki hoibo? Amar miththar theika shoira ashtey parbo o churi koira thaka thekey bachtey parbo.” Said Shahnaj Begum, President of Durjoy Nari Shongho (DNS). “Being able to tell our profession on our National IDs — it is the first form of recognition to fight our long-winded process of establishing our basic-rights. For example, I don’t have to hide during a natural disaster if I have this ID, otherwise, without an ID I will be kicked out, be it at the relief-places, schools, offices or even for getting proper medical help.”

Yes. The NIDs may or may not be a big deal for you or any other privileged citizens of Bangladesh, but for the general sex workers vulnerable to rape, abuse, and harassment in a male chauvinistic system —it is crucially important.

In defence of the rejection, the Election commissioner Sohul Hossain mentioned that the vocation ‘sex worker’ was omitted from voter registration forms in order to discourage it. But of course they can go as ‘other’? It is almost like saying, “We will use them, and reuse them, but we cannot afford to admit their existence to ourselves.”

Since when is it the job of EC to take such a moral stance?

Will we be able to remove sex work, one of the oldest professions of our society, by systematically keeping them ‘hidden’ on our state system? Or would there be 20 million more individuals who will jump into choosing this profession just because they can mention it on their IDs now?

Honestly, does the EC really think that getting them listed through our National IDs will really make more of us embrace the shackles that come with this profession?

By NOT giving them the recognition, aren’t we, the greater part of society, forcing sex-workers — the majority of whom already form the most marginalised part of the oppressed female sex — to continue living in captivity? In that ‘darkness’ of it all, how will anything change for the better?

If being ‘adults’ mean we cannot speak loudly and clearly of what we do in life, and instead are asked to cheat and hide our professions, then what kind of democracy is this?

Had they been given the option to truthfully state what they do, it would hold a clear account of not only how many members of our community are forced down this path, and thus addressing the deeper problems of our society but also an idea of how many depend on their services.

It may have been less disturbing, had we known the reasons behind why this independent constitutional body, within just few days of ‘approving’ something, was all of a sudden compelled to withdraw their decision.

At some point we are bound to come out of this captivity. The sticker above my desk reads: “Kono nirobotai jouno-kormideyr ostitto bilin korbey na — ashun odhikar er kotha boli.” Perhaps EC, our new moral police, will find some compassion in their hearts to understand that and create the platform for healthy dialogues on our class-based, profession-based social concerns.

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